by Caitlin Zittkowski
In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king condemned by the gods for all eternity to roll a boulder up the side of a mountain, only to have it roll back down again when he neared the mountain's peak. The gods sentenced Sisyphus to this task because "there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."
Sisyphus' struggle has been in the back of my mind as I have read news articles about the recent rash of sexual violence incidents. Those dedicated to combating sexual assault appear to be engaged in a similarly never-ending effort. Just as advocates seem to be nearing the summit, making progress against the occurrence of these tragedies, we discover another appalling event, the boulder backslides, and we are forced to begin again.
Within the past couple weeks alone, two such stories have come to light. Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott, two teenage girls who lived thousands of miles apart, both hanged themselves after allegedly being sexually assaulted by groups of teenage boys and subsequently suffered through having humiliating photos of the incidents circulated online. Though social media can provide proof to back up sexual assault accusations, such as in the Steubenville rape case, tipping the scales in what could be a deadlocked he-said, she-said situation, it also provides an avenue for bullying, turning sexual violence survivors into social pariahs.
And unfortunately this wave of sexual violence has not been confined to high schoolers. Recent congressional hearings concerning how the military has handled sexual assault among service members, spurred by incidents such as an Air Force commander throwing out a fighter pilot's sexual assault conviction, has shed light on this widespread but often unseen problem. In fact, women serving in combat zones are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy. In response to accusations that the military's autonomy has led to a lack of accountability, the Pentagon has proposed an overhaul of the court-martial system for prosecuting service members.
Though the Pentagon's proposal is a positive step, reports of sexual violence still churn up feelings of frustration and helplessness. Sexual assault ripples outward from those who survive it, affecting their family, friends, and community. But what can we do when we are seemingly surrounded by an onslaught of potential perpetrators and an often unresponsive legal system? People are angry, but fortunately anger can breed action, and because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to take a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to tackling sexual violence. So here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Examine your own behavior. Objectively assess your own actions and words. Are your actions (or inactions) somehow contributing to a society in which sexual assault is commonplace? Even something as simple as commenting on how someone dresses without thinking about how such a remark could be interpreted (or not putting someone else who makes inappropriate comments in check) could be fostering an atmosphere that discourages sexual assault survivors from seeking support.
2. If you have children, you can prevent sexual violence by talking to them early and often about these issues. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has steps materials to help you start.
3. Support (or start) a group in your community working to effect change. If you are in the Seattle area, you could attend a screening of The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual violence in the U.S. military, at in Mobius Hall at Cascadia Community College on May 2nd at 6:00 PM. The Kirkland-Redmond branch of the American Association of University Women is sponsoring the event, and they are looking for volunteers to greet attendees and staff an information table.
By taking even small steps, we can chip away at the boulder-sized problem sexual violence poses. Increasing awareness of the sexual assault epidemic will hopefully motivate more people to help push the rock up the mountain, making it more likely that we will one day reach the top.
Caitlin Zittkowski is a former legal extern and current fan of Legal Voice.